Border Crosser by Tom Doyle
Paperback, 383 pages | September 15 2020 | Ring of Fire Press
I’d reviewed a few things by Tom Doyle, starting with American Craftsmen (2014), a story about a unit of paranormal operatives for the US government that goes back to George Washington’s time. The other day he reached out to me to see if I wanted to take a look at Border Crosser, his latest book. I’d really liked American Craftsman, so even though I’m as buried in books not yet published as ever, I said, sure…I’ll take a look.
The cover very nearly stopped me. Don’t get me wrong. I’m up for occasional glam gals in spacesuits with guns and explosions, but the level of cheese here made this a hard sell. Still, I’d promised, so when a copy arrived at my Kindle, I thought I’d give it a quick look, then get back to stuff I needed to read. You probably know how that goes.
Border Crosser has a lot of problems, but not being a good book isn’t one of them.
Here’s a snippet from the publisher’s description that gives you a fair start.
Eris is a charismatic spy with a violent borderline personality and emotional amnesia–she doesn’t remember her loyalties. This allows her to pass from world to world without mental scanners detecting her long-term intentions, making her a “border crosser.”
The Asylum cabal has artificially amplified Eris’s condition so that she’ll cause interstellar chaos for the limited time she survives. When Eris discovers the Asylum’s manipulation of her, she sets out to find its hidden leaders and destroy them. – Ring of Fire Press: Border Crosser
The book starts out with a James Bond sort of flair, but without Bond’s excuse of saving the world for his bad behavior. Instead, it’s just Robynne/Countess/Eris (depending on the day, but we’ll go with Eris)’s fickle and chaotic nature doing whatever she wants. The girl is a hot mess. Nominally an interstellar spy she’s really more of a chaotic agent. In fact, if there was a character alignment for chaotic/chaotic, that would be her.
She manifests a Borderline Personality Disorder, which means she’s rash, shows poor judgment, and changes her mind a lot. On top of that, she’s got “emotional amnesia,” so she can’t remember how she feels about anything from one day to the next. Yesterday she loved you. Today she hates you. Tomorrow she won’t’ give a fig. That’s very handy if you have to pass mind scanner tests to cross borders. Hence the title, though trust me, it’s a double or triple entendre.
The agency that scooped her up actually worked to amplify her issues because stability isn’t what they’re after. In fact, what they’re after with her, and others like her is to use them as destabilizing influences, sending them to hang out with movers and shakers of worlds the agency would like to disrupt and let nature take its course. And she’s very, very good at it.
I recently reviewed A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine, where the heir to ab Empire is cautioned that the trick to keeping the peace was in having “noticed disruptive people, and made sure they couldn’t be disruptive any longer.” It’s a trick that someone has picked up on here, and Eris’ colleagues are being methodically eliminated.
Eris is smart, but it takes a while for her to realize that she’s not actually reporting on anything the agency wants to know; she’s seeding disruption and chaos in her wake. And here she just thought she was having fun. There’s a lot she doesn’t give a damn about, and she’d just as cheerfully have sex with a person of interest as kill them, or both, but when she finds that whole worlds have gone dark because of what she and others like her have done, she finds a cause she can hang onto for more than one mood change. Find out who Those Who Pay The Bills are and destroy them.
Unfortunately, at the start, her disorders make her a problematic protagonist. She’s batshit crazy with a level of narcissism that would make a recent president blush. By the way, Doyle wrote this in 2017, and couldn’t help himself, so that president makes a thinly disguised cameo appearance and gets the chance to blush before being tossed aside by our gal. It’s only as the book goes on and she develops actual relationships, much to her horror, and an actual mission, much to our relief, that she becomes sympathetic. In a lot of ways, she goes against the grain of what we want in a hero/protagonist, and I feel a bit like Doc Smith’s true blue lensman, trying to understand the ethos of Nadreck the Palainian, sort of a Spock precursor without the angst (too obscure? yeah maybe.). She’s definitely not neurotypical, but she’s also not one of the branches of neurodiversity that we feel sympathy for, at least until she develops as a character.
The action goes from Earth, where AIs are banned since the war where they tried to take over, to Mars, where she’s forced to confront the family of one-percenters that she’d fled, and off to one of the war-torn planets that she’d destabilized. There’s actually a lot of interesting thought in this book, with ideological classes between a Theocratic old Earth, the Para-Humanoid League. and the Hegemony. The first is devoted to wiping out all AIs, the second is into “the trafficking of humans and other sentients,” and the third offers refuge to AIs and (dullish) utopia to humans. Doyle has a lot to play around with here and he uses the field to good effect.
If this had come out from one of the major publishers, you’d take it seriously. Coming out from Eric Flint’s Ring of Fire as a publisher isn’t a problem in itself, but it’s not a good match. The cover, which the author doesn’t like any more than I do, doesn’t do the book justice by a long shot. That nothing like the scene depicted ever happens in the book is an old trope in sf, but that it screams a type of action and adventure, sells the novel short.
Border Crossing isn’t just about fucking, fighting, and fomenting chaos across the galaxy in bad-girl secret-agent style, though that’s all pretty much non-stop. Oddly, the sex and killing are incidental. In the end, it’s about the main character becoming human despite having been shaped as a weapon and sent by those who should have loved her to probable death.
It may be one of the best things Doyle has written, but you have to get past the outside to get to the good stuff.